Can India match Finland’s education outcomes

12 Dec

Finland is near the top of the International league tables of countries that do well by their children in educating them, while India lags close to the bottom. While the Finnish system, rather different from the education systems that typically exist around the world, it is also situated in a unique part of the world. The egalitarianism that this country and its neighbours demonstrate has been hard fought over the past few decades. And that attitude shows in their education system too.


While we in India focus on marks and performance in examinations, the system in Finland has no examinations at all for the first few years, the first main exam being at the age of sixteen. Children are then able to learn without having to limit themselves to a syllabus, though of course standards are delineated. In India too we are trying a system with no examinations for the first eight years of schooling. But the differences are huge. Each class has a teacher and a teaching assistant, and there is extra support easily available for the weak students. Teachers are recruited from the top of the class, and while their starting incomes are less than that of their peer group, the incomes rise faster than average. So most teachers earn more than the average income as they get better and more experienced. All of this is very good news for the student who is inspired by those who have seen academic success, and are genuinely competent.


Indian teachers are not always of the highest calibre. While teacher pay has improved in recent years to very respectable levels for government schools, many low income private schools still pay a pittance. Teacher training suffers from the usual problem of a few good schools and thousands of mediocre places for training teachers. Teachers in India rarely get any support after they start working, and often the in-career training is not taken seriously. Teachers have to manage classes of forty students, on average, and they do it alone. Without assistance, with minimal planning and with no recourse to specialist help for the students who are falling behind. For many teachers, this means that they are unable to focus on the bottom half of the class. For the students lagging behind, there is little respite from feeling a failure, and from feeling overburdened by greater expectations each year even as they realise they have not mastered the previous. And this is at the core of the flaws in building citizens for the future.


Finland’s success comes both from structures and society. There is a genuine belief that people must strive to make society more equal. Even traffic fines depend on income, with millionaires being charged tens of thousands of Euros for the same crime for which students pay a hundred Euros. Schools work the same way – the weakest are allowed to work their way up at their own pace. At the same time, teachers too work hard to ensure that each and every child gets the care needed. Can India ever build such care into its teaching? We have to – else much of our investment in teaching is wasted. We have the chance with the RTE to prove that we have the heart as well as the tools to deliver quality education to the child who needs it most. If 25% of children in each school are going to come from the weakest sections of society, then they are going to need the support – Finland style, outside class. This requires resources – and so far there has been little talk about how this will be delivered.


The children left behind are not just from different economic classes but also those who are less able physically than others. Their academic confidence is fragile, but the competence is clearly waiting to be discovered. With health and nutrition support, there is evidence to prove that achievement levels can match those of more privileged children.


Can India become like Finland in its education outcomes? India has many hurdles to cross. The first is scale, which almost makes competition a tool for survival. The resources and opportunities are a hard battle to circumvent. The range of learning to be designed is vast – across regions we cannot seek and cultivate homogenisation like they have. The most crucial is the teachers – unless we have the best teachers, who put in their best, with the care they give their own children – there can be little hope for the weak. The duty of care is the first ask of a teacher.




This article was published in the Times of India blogs on December 4, 2012, and can be accessed here and is linked here:


One Response to “Can India match Finland’s education outcomes”

  1. behrfacts December 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    International comparison is all the rage nowadays and we have just had the new TIMMS and PIRLS results out with some nations jumping for joy and others in the depths of despair. As you say the uniformly consistent factor is teachers, but also leadership, ethos and supporting infrastructure in schools. I was born in India so perhaps in another world might have received an education there (my mother did part of hers). As it is my education started and finished in England with a brief interlude in Switzerland, though at a very English international boarding school. I do think every child should experience life outside their town or village and perhaps this can be encouraged in India given the vastness of the country.

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